2.2 Word Choice


This section of Ch. 2 will cover the following topics:

  • using a dictionary and a thesaurus
  • recognizing connotations
  • avoiding slang, clichés, and overly general words

If you have always been an avid reader, your vocabulary is probably large and you generally use words correctly.  The best time to develop language skills is as a child, but it’s never too late to start.  The more you read, the larger your vocabulary gets and the more the rules of language use are automatically embedded in your brain.  But studying how to use words can also expand your vocabulary and increase your ability to use words correctly.

Use a Dictionary and Thesaurus

Even professional writers need help with the meaning, spelling, pronunciation, and use of some words.  No one knows every word in the English language and their multiple uses and meanings, so all writers, from beginners to professionals, can benefit from using a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Most good dictionaries provide the following information:

  • Spelling: how the word and its different forms are spelled
  • Pronunciation: how to say the word
  • Part of speech: the function of the word in a sentence
  • Definition: the meaning or meanings of the word
  • Synonyms: words that have similar meanings
  • Etymology: the history of the word

Look at the following dictionary entry and see if you can identify parts from the list above:

myth, mith, n. [Gr. mythos, a word, a fable, a legend.]  A fable or legend embodying the convictions of a people as to their gods or other divine beings, their beginnings and early history and the heroes connected with it, or the origin of the world; any invented story, having no existence in fact.—myth • ic, myth • i • cal

A thesaurus gives a list of synonyms and antonyms for a word.  A thesaurus can help you find the perfect word to convey your ideas.  It will also help you learn more words.


Never simply replace one word with another unless you are sure you know what the replacement word means!

Here is an example thesaurus entry.  It gives the word, its part of speech, an example of its use, and synonyms and antonyms.

precocious adj., She’s such a precocious child.: uncommonly smart, mature, advanced, bright, brilliant, gifted, quick, clever.  Ant. slow, backward, stupid.

Every time you use a dictionary or a thesaurus, the number of ways you can express yourself grows.

Recognize Connotations

“Denotation” is the dictionary definition of a word, its literal meaning.  A “connotation” is the emotional or cultural meaning attached to a word.  The connotation of a word can be positive, negative, or neutral.  Look at the differences illustrated here:


  • Literal definition (denotation):  exceptionally thin and slight
  • In a sentence:  Although he was a scrawny child, Martin developed into a strong man.
  • Connotation: negative.  In this sentence, the word “scrawny” implies weak or flawed.


  • Literal definition (denotation):  having little fat
  • In a sentence:  Skinny jeans have become very fashionable.
  • Connotation: positive.  In this sentence, the word “skinny” has positive cultural and personal overtones.  Connotations can change over time.  For example, in the past, “skinny” had only negative connotations, meaning less than normal.


  • Literal definition (denotation):  lacking or deficient in flesh
  • In a sentence:  My brother is lean, but I have a more muscular build.
  • Connotation: neutral.  The word “lean” does not evoke an overly thin person like the word “scrawny,” nor does it imply the positive cultural impressions of the word “skinny.” It is merely a neutral descriptive word.

These words have very similar denotative meanings; however, their connotations differ dramatically.  Obviously, writers want to use words with correct literal meaning, but writers must also keep connotative meanings in mind when choosing a word.

Exercise 1

For each of the words listed below, identify two synonyms.  One should have a positive connotation and one a negative connotation.

For example:

dog:  pet (positive), mutt (negative)

  1. Smell
  2. Liar
  3. Proud
  4. Young
  5. Private

Avoid Slang and Clichés

Slang is informal words that are non-standard English.  “Non-standard” means “not accepted by most people as correct.”  Slang is language used by a specific group and often changes over time as new fads appear.  For example, the word “cool” was common slang in the 1960s, whereas “cold” is common slang these days.  Slang is appropriate between friends in an informal context, but should be avoided in professional or academic writing.

Clichés are expressions that have lost their effectiveness because they are overused.  For example, the phrase “fluffy white clouds” is boring because we’ve heard it a million times.  The poet Rupert Brooke called clouds “rounds of snow.”  Better, right?  We aren’t all poets, but writing that uses clichés suffers from a lack of originality and insight.  Avoiding clichés will help your writing feel original and fresh.  Here is an example:

  • Cliché:  When my brother and I have an argument, he says things that make my blood boil.
  • Better:  When my brother and I have an argument, he says things that make me really angry.
  • Original:  When my brother and I have an argument, he says things that make me want to go to the gym and punch the bag for a few hours.

Exercise 2

Identify a casual word that you use frequently that is acceptable in conversation but not in the kind of formal writing expected in college.  Write a sentence using the word, underlining it.   Then rewrite the sentence replacing the casual word with a more formal option that means the same thing.

For example:

  • Casual sentence:  When he doesn’t get what he wants, he’s a jerk.
  • Revised sentence:  When he doesn’t get what he wants, he behaves badly.

(Don’t pick a texting abbreviation, such as “LOL” or “OMG.”  They are casual and should be avoided in formal writing, but this assignment is looking for actual words.)


Then, identify one cliché that you have used in the past.  Write a sentence using the cliché and underline it.  Then rewrite the sentence replacing the cliché with a more original option that means the same thing.

For example:

  • Cliché sentence:  In this job, it’s important to think outside of the box.
  • Revised sentence:  In this job, it’s important to think creatively.

Avoid Overly General Words

General words are vague and boring.  Specific words and images make writing more interesting to read.  Details bring words to life.  They provide color, texture, sound, even smell.

Which sentence in each pair is more visual?

  • My new puppy is cute.
  • My new puppy is a ball of white fuzz with eyes like black olives.
  • My teacher told us plagiarism is bad.
  • My teacher, Ms. Atwater, told us that plagiarism is illegal and unethical.

Notice that it isn’t the use of fancy words that makes an image vivid; it’s the use of specific examples.

Exercise 3

Revise the following sentences by replacing the overly general words (in bold) with more precise and interesting language.  Don’t overdo; just add some specific detail.

  1. My sister’s new hair style was interesting.
  2. The good dog got a cookie.
  3. The farmer was tired after a long day.
  4. She thought the guy at the next table was cute.
  5. Santiago worked hard on the brick patio.


  • Using a dictionary and thesaurus regularly will expand your vocabulary.
  • Connotations of words may be positive, neutral, or negative.  Be aware of connotations when choosing words.
  • Slang, cliches, and overly general words should be avoided in writing.


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